Kansas legislative session promises more discussion on COVID-19, critical race theory

TOPICA — As Kansas lawmakers gather Monday in Topeka to resolve issues with the ongoing COVID-19 disease, election law and the state’s economic well-being, some advocates of hope are that humanity, not political games, will shine in 2022.

An election year, mixed with public outcry over the handling of the pandemic, is setting up a noteworthy 2022 session. Expect discussion about adopting medical marijuana law, expanding Medicaid eligibility, critical race theory, repealing food sales tax on groceries and more in the coming months.

Moreover, lawmakers will attempt to redraw the boundaries of Kansas House, the Kansas Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, a process that is sure to affect the elections and political landscape in Kansas over the next decade.

Kansas leaders urged Interfaith Action – a statewide multi-religious advocacy organization – lawmakers to serve all people, not just a select few.

Reverend Robert Johnson is Principal Servant of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Wichita, and a member of the Kansas Board of Directors for Interfaith Action. (Presenter)

Mark’s United Methodist Church in Wichita and Kansas Interfaith Board Member, said Reverend Robert Johnson, in an interview with the Kansas Reflector podcast.

In 2021, 769 bills were introduced, and among them, 116 became laws after approval by both Houses and the Governor. A total of 601 bills from last year, including the House-passed medical marijuana proposal, will move into the 2022 legislative session.

A new set of hot issues are rising to the top, including critical race theory.

Despite repeated pledges from state and local school board members that Kansas schools and teachers do not teach CRT, political pressure has put the issue front and center. The Kansas Interfaith Action Organization plans to oppose any legislation that would limit the overall vision of Kansas and American history.

Rabbi Moti Ripper, executive director of the Kansas Interfaith Action, said the conversation really isn’t comprehensive at most Kansas schools.

“What are you afraid of? You don’t really know it anyway,” said Reaper. “What it really shows is that there is a lot to be proud of, you know—not injustice, but overcoming injustice, which we have done consistently throughout our history.”

Reaper said the lack of comprehensive historical education, combined with statesmanship, led to the ignorance shown in November before the special session when a family opposing COVID-19 mandates emerged wearing the Star of David.

“Theoretically, you could end up losing your job if you weren’t vaccinated, but it’s not the same thing as being put in a cattle car,” Reber said. “My history is not here relative to someone else’s political view.”

Governor Laura Kelly answers questions during a January 6, 2022 press conference at State House in Topeka, where she announces a new emergency declaration. (Sherman Smith/KS Reflector)

private session

Look for lawmakers to take over the unfinished business of the inflammatory special session early on, especially in light of a newly signed disaster declaration by Governor Laura Kelly.

Potential coronavirus-related bills range from withdrawing a private company’s authority to mandate employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine to suggesting that a COVID-19 vaccination status be added to the list of prohibited forms of job discrimination — along with race, religion, color, sex, disability, ancestry, national origin and age. The measure banning any form of “passport vaccination” has also generated some talk.

“I think as we look at the next session … there will be talks about going forward, what is that going to look like, and how can we protect people more? How can we think about banning states?” said Representative Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican who served on the special committee. About government bypass, at the end of the special session in November.

A proposal by Senator Robert Olson, R-Olathe, to protect employers from paying into the state unemployment trust if there is a spike in unemployment claims the final bill is not presented at the special session. In 2022, it could find a new life.

David Jordan, chair of the United Methodist Department of Health Trust, insisted that science and the guidance of public health professionals should be the driving force behind legislation related to COVID-19.

“We need to trust public health professionals, whether at the local level or within state agencies, to implement the policies we know work like concealment and vaccination and to make sure their efforts are not hampered by politics,” Jordan said.

House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer and Assistant Minority Leader Jason Probst announced three constitutional amendments to bring Medicaid expansion, recreational and medical marijuana to statewide voters. (Noah Taborda/Reflector KS)

Marijuana and Medicaid

Other efforts when it comes to the health of Kansans, such as potentially expanding Medicaid or legalizing a form of marijuana, are already underway. Three Kansas constitutional amendments proposed by the House of Representatives Democratic leadership will bring these issues to a public vote.

Amendments to the state constitution — one to expand Medicaid, one to legalize medical marijuana and one to legalize recreational marijuana — would direct the legislature to create these policies by July 1, 2023.

Before going into a public vote, the proposed amendments would need the support of two-thirds of both houses. House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer had hoped that despite past stalemates on these issues, allowing the vote could lead to more talks with Republicans.

“The Republican leadership actively hindered it at every turn,” said the Wichita Democrat, a Democrat. “It is time to start handing these things over to the Kansans and letting them make the decision. … Kansans ask, “Does the legislature want to do this?” If they vote yes, the legislature will have to comply with the will of the voters.”

If passed, the measures will be put to a public vote in November. Kansas is one of 12 states that have not yet expanded Medicaid and three states that have not yet legalized marijuana in some form.

In 2021, the House passed a medical marijuana bill, but the Senate chose not to act, although it is still possible in 2022.

Scott Schwab, the Kansas Secretary of State, answers questions from news reporters Monday after the December 14, 2020 Electoral College vote in the State House House room. (Sherman Smith/KS Reflector)

Elections and redistricting

Unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud have raised concerns about the integrity of the elections and paved the way for further debate over the election law in 2022.

Last session, lawmakers approved a package of bills that voting rights advocates have described as restrictive or unconstitutional. A series of legal proceedings against these measures is still ongoing.

In 2022, both the Senate and the House of Representatives plan to further consider the integrity of the elections. Despite repeatedly saying that the Kansas elections are safe and secure, Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab is seeking further changes to the election law to combat so-called voter fraud.

Suggestions include changes to election audits, securing election equipment, and a recommendation to purge voters who skip two elections.

“By securing voting equipment, strengthening election audits and maintaining voter lists, Kansans can have confidence that these simple changes will enhance security without causing voter confusion,” Schwab said.

An issue that is sure to spill into the voting law conversation is redistricting, which could significantly affect future elections. The task of remapping the state to serve the interests of nearly 3 million Kansans must be completed by June to provide an orderly process for placing candidates.

The Republican Party has openly talked about developing congressional districts that protect the interests of three current GOP members of Congress and undermine the re-election prospects of the state’s only Democratic Representative in Washington, Charice Davids. The Democratic Party has the opposite goal.

Charlie Crabtree, board member of the League of Women Voters in Lawrence and Douglas County, urged lawmakers to avoid legal and political issues.

“Democracy is served when districts are drawn with respect for justice and the integrity of neighborhoods, when classes of the electorate are not targeted with repression and when those in power exercise the golden rule of politics—that is, remember that they will not always be in power,” Crabtree said.

Rabbi Moti Ripper is executive director of the Kansas Interfaith Action, a statewide, faith-based advocacy organization that “puts faith into action” on important social, economic and climate justice issues. He lives in Overland Park. (Presenter)

Help hungry Kansans

While the big-ticket issues will attract much of the legislature’s attention, Johnson and Reaper focus on ensuring the economic well-being of the vulnerable Kansan.

One focus point is the abolition of the state’s sales tax on food, something that Governor and Attorney General Derek Schmidt proposed last year. Under Kelly’s suggestion, it is estimated that a family of four would save $500 on their purchases bill. Kelly estimated the state’s loss of revenue at $450 million.

“Here in the zip code I’m in, we’re in a food desert above sales tax, so food is expensive and healthy food is scarce,” Johnson said. “If we get rid of the food sales tax, it would greatly help the poorest human population and it would be just a huge economic boost for them.”

Johnson is also looking into the predatory practice of payday loans, an issue that sparked some conversations in legislative committees last year but never raised in either house. He and Reaper said the payday loan industry and lobbyists had successfully crushed previous alliances that proposed reform.

“When[people of color and the poor]get in trouble and we need a loan, we need some financial resources, and the only resources available that will lend us money, it’s predatory lending,” Johnson said. “You can feel that the world is against you.”

Leave a Comment